Sarajevo: the bullet that ended peace

Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie shortly before they were assassinated in Sarajevo.
Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie shortly before they were assassinated in Sarajevo.

On Sunday, June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, next in line to the thrones of Austria-Hungary, along with his wife Sophie, arrived by train at Sarajevo in Bosnia. They were celebrating their wedding anniversary and both appeared happy and relaxed as they were driven through the main street in an open car. Perhaps they were unaware that June 28, St Vitus’s day, was also the anniversary of the destruction of the Serbian army by the Turks in 1389 which had effectively ended Serbian independence for 500 years. Now, in 1914, this was the first time that the Field of Blackbirds (Kosovo) once again belonged to the Serbs 
after their victory there over the Ottoman Turks the previous year. “Kosovo is free! Kosovo is avenged!” was the joyful cry of Belgrade’s Black Hand, the journal of the Serbian 

And there were seven young Black Hand would-be assassins waiting along the advertised route of Franz Ferdinand’s 
motorcade. To all of them Austrian Bosnia was legitimately as much a part of the greater kingdom of Serbia as Kosovo and the choice of June 28 for the visit to Sarajevo seemed a deliberate and provocative insult to their nation.

Security was minimal. The archduke was a conspicuous target, wearing a full dress uniform and a green ostrich feathered helmet. There were no escort guards in or close to his vehicle.

The aspiring assassins wore bombs no bigger than bars of soap strapped to their waists, carried loaded Browning revolvers in their pockets and 
paper packets of cyanide to take if they were captured.

The first bomb missed the archduke’s car as it passed and exploded underneath the one behind, third in the line, seriously injuring one of the escort officers. The Bosnian Serb who threw it then failed to kill himself: his cyanide gave him only a very sore throat.

The archduke was outraged. At Sarajevo’s Town Hall the mayor was told furiously: “I came here as your guest and you people greet me with bombs.” He then dictated a telegram to his 83-year-old uncle, Emperor Franz Joseph, assuring him that he and Sophie had escaped harm.

But the itinerary now had to be changed: instead of driving to the National Museum, they would go to the local hospital to see the wounded officer. Unfortunately, no one had told the drivers who took the original route until told to stop and reverse. Since the archduke’s vehicle had no reverse gear it had to be pushed back on to the main thoroughfare.

This was the moment Gavrilo Princip was presented with an opportunity he had previously missed. He stepped forward from the pavement and fired two shots at the back-seat passengers at point blank range. The first passed through the car door and hit Sophie in the stomach, the second severed the archduke’s jugular vein. Within minutes they were both dead.

Princip was immediately set upon by the crowd of onlookers and saved from a lynching by 
arresting policemen.

Gavrilo was an unlikely terrorist murderer. Only 19 years old, thin and pale, he was already suffering from the 
tuberculosis that would soon end his life. Two years earlier, he had been rejected for military service with the Serbian 
army on the grounds that he was “too weak and small”.

Though he denied that he was an agent of the Belgrade government and the secret terrorist wing of the Black Hand, in Vienna the assassination was assumed to be the conspiracy of Serbian nationalists. Franz Ferdinand was far from popular even in Austria and deeply distrusted in Hungary, but the most senior members in his uncle’s government and army regarded the circumstances of his death as a perfect opportunity to crush Serbia, once and for all.

In another sense, Princip’s fatal bullet also removed the best hope for peace in the Balkans. The archduke had been the most powerful resistance to Vienna’s hawks, civilian and military, who for years had wanted “to settle accounts” with the Serbs.

Nevertheless, Sarajevo was still a long way from starting a third Balkan war. The prime minster of Hungary was actually relieved by Franz Ferdinand’s removal. Two days later he warned the Emperor that a punitive attack on Serbia would almost certainly bring retaliation from Roumania and Russia and as yet there was no cast-iron guarantee that in such a case Austria could rely on Germany.

Moreover, other reactions to the murder were even less supportive of Vienna’s hawks. In Paris, press and public attention focused on the trial of Madame Caillaux, wife of the former premier. After Figaro had published her love letters to him while he was still married to his first wife, she had fired six bullets into the body of its editor in his office. On July 29 she 
was acquitted on the grounds that the crime had been justified by Figaro’s slur on her honour!

Uninterested in French crimes of passion, the London Times concluded that Serbia might be to blame and Austria was entitled to retaliation, but not to the point of causing a general war in the Balkans. As yet there was no public awareness in Britain that the recent tragic events in faraway Bosnia posed any threat to the nations’s August Bank Holiday, due to begin on Friday July 31.

However, in contrast and ominously, both the Russian and French governments refused to accept that Princip and his associates were indeed the agents of Belgrade; their contention was that Austria-Hungary was cynically exploiting the crime at Sarajevo to “justify” their aim to destroy the Serbian state.